By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. It's hard to tell, especially with all the punk rock, the moshing, the screaming and the body-surfing. How can you notice a single utterance from a guitar player amid all this? But somebody up front sees him say it as the guitar pick slips through his fingers and floats to the floor.A cuss word seems to have spilled from Dingees guitarist Jeff Holmes' mouth. Some punk kid in the audience sees his lips shape it, though it's impossible to actually hear inside all the noise. But this word evidently confirms a sneaking suspicion inside the kid's head, and after the song ends he decides to confront the band head-on. He spits the accusation at the stage:
"You're lukewarm!" he screams, then mutters something else under his breath.
"Wait a minute ... wait a minute," says Pegleg, the lead singer, slamming the brakes on the show. "What did you say?"
"You're lukewarm!" answers the kid, then says something about the cuss word and the guitarist and about not being a good Christian. Holmes is visibly angry a button has been pushed. The accusation burns.
It's an insult that, on a smaller scale, mirrors the moment during Bob Dylan's historical shift to electric guitar in the mid-'60s when an alienated audience member screamed "Judas!" at the singer. "You're lukewarm!" suggests a similar betrayal; the reference, which will likely escape all but serious Bible readers, is to Revelations 3:16: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth."
The only light entering the sanctuary of the Mid-Rivers Baptist Chapel in St. Peters is the faint glow of the stained-glass window above the band's sound system, though the window is covered by a huge banner adorned with the faux-scribbled logo of the headlining band, the Insyderz.
Pegleg has to answer, and he does: "We're not lukewarm! All you gotta do is read the lyrics in our CD to know that. But even if he did say it, so what? We're not perfect. Nobody is. We make mistakes every day. Not really a good Christian? The whole basis of Christianity is that Christ forgives you for your sins! And even if he did slip up, that's what he did he messed up. And Christ forgives you for that!" And the crowd roared in affirmation.
Were it not for the barely visible stained-glass window, you'd be hard-pressed to identify the space as the sanctuary of a Baptist church. The pews have been removed so that the crowd will have space to dance and mosh. The room itself looks a bit like Off Broadway minus the bar, with a wide-open area in front of the stage, where the diehard fans stand, and a nice-sized balcony above. The setup is as advanced as most downtown clubs a big stage dropped in the area reserved for the choir, a fancy light system, fog machine, PA.
But if you attend one of the church's occasional rock shows, within five minutes the message and mission will become clear: Jesus and faith are everywhere here, and everywhere within the cloistered Christian-rock community in St. Louis, even if they're physically obscured from view.
"More punk rock!" somebody screams.
"Punk rock isn't about speed," responds Pegleg. "It's about attitude!"
The same could be said for Christian rock as a whole: Regardless of whether you're into speed and thrash, swing, ska-punk, teenybopper girl rock or straight-ahead punk, music that moves from threatening dirge to happy pop, it matters not; as long as the underlying attitude is on the straight and narrow a devout faith in the Christian message the bands could dress like Marilyn Manson or Black Sabbath and enter the church to perform. And they sometimes do.
Robbie Clark walks around the Mid-Rivers Baptist Chapel like he owns the place. During shows that he and partner Nick Erickson promote for their fledgling company, Ten Pin Productions, you'll see Clark, 18, standing outside at the front door, where a group of teenagers sit at the admission table selling tickets, which usually range in price from $8-$15. You'll see him just inside the door, where tables have been set up to sell merchandise touring bands make much of their income from the sales of T-shirts, stickers, hats, all displayed with band names, record-label affiliations talking to the band members and table merchants. You'll see him onstage, checking the setup or taking the mic to welcome everyone and occasionally, once the show is about to begin, to lead the audience in prayer.
"I would like to bring a good small-venue scene to St. Louis," says Clark, "and not only a good small-venue scene but a Christian small-venue scene to show that Christian music can keep up with secular music as far as the style. As hard as they can rock, these guys can rock harder. I haven't heard anybody yet that's as hard as (Christian band) Living Sacrifice except maybe GWAR, and GWAR's just out there. So I want to prove that Christian music can keep up. There's a lot of bands that sing about their beliefs, but they're not Christian beliefs, so they get on the radio and they get popular. Well, all these guys, they're making the same music sometimes they're a lot more competent and making better music but because their belief happens to be in Christianity, they don't get out there. And I think that's very unfair. If a Satanist group can make it, like GWAR, I think they should be able to get a fair shot."
What's happening out here in St. Peters and in a handful of Christian churches in the St. Louis area isn't part of some sort of cultural, or even musical, revolution; it's not some massive subculture on the verge of exploding into the mainstream. Nor is a thriving Christian-rock scene fermenting in the area, though several bands Cope, FoM, the Ruin, the Cartwrights, Catalyst are gigging at rock clubs (Cope recently won the Midnight Metal battle of the bands at Pop's on the East Side) or in churches. Rather, a genre long since considered secular rebellion, rock & roll, has been harnessed by people who, wisely, realize that in an era in which the Christian message struggles daily to compete with the allure of MTV, Hollywood and commercial radio, the surest way to touch hearts with the Word is through hipster music. But once a month, here and in a few other area churches (such as Parkwood Christian Church in Maryland Heights), Christian-rock bands gig in the sanctuaries, replete with all the rock accoutrements.
Although the Christian buzzwords Christ, Holy Ghost, born again, redemption are often avoided in many of the songs, they're implicit in every performance activity, from the occasional heaven-glancing upward gazes of lead singers to the he-slammed-me-but-it-felt-like-a-kiss free-for-all in the mosh pit to the quiet prayers that open many of the shows. This message is nestled away inside the records, between the beats, in the corners of Christian record labels' Web sites. And it's being preached in the form of hard rock, ska, punk, metal, hip-hop and swing all the youth music and the crowd just loves it.
Audiences range from a few hundred to 700 or 800. In churches with removable pews, like Mid-Rivers, they're hauled out and the open space is a perfect atmosphere for a rock show. At other churches, like First Baptist Church of Ferguson, the pews stay, and the crowd must either cram in front of them or take a seat in one.
Clark has the blessing and trust of the church's pastor, Richard Holcombe. "The message that's going out is a message we affirm," says Holcombe. "Music, as far as I'm concerned, is a matter of personal taste. My folks despised the early Beatles, and now you compare them to the music today times change. Compare the music in the church today with what was done in the first century. You don't hear too many Hebrew chants today. So our first commission is to get the message out and try to do it in some form that can be received without compromising the message. I don't think it's written anywhere in the Scriptures that "thou shalt not have a good time when you're doing it.'"
And the crowd, which ranges from early teens to people in their early 20s, does have a good time. During a recent hard-rock show at the church, the mosh pit was going full force. They knew the songs, exploded when P.O.D. (an acronym for Payable on Death) riffed one of their favorites, lifted one another up to body-surf.
"A building's a building," says Holcombe. "Obviously, when you gather as God's people, it's a sanctuary."
The guitar entered Anglo-Christian churches in the late '60s and early '70s as liberal, youth-oriented churches became involved in the Jesus Movement, an offshoot of hippie culture that stressed Christ, not drugs, as the true vehicle for spiritual transcendence. Holcombe recalls, "I played the guitar in a church then probably the first guitar played in our church for a youth musical, and that was considered cutting-edge. Now, if you'd listen to it, it's really not. But that set a lot of people on their ear." Before then, jokes Holcombe, strict rules were enforced concerning music and celebration: "Baptists, for the longest time, could only clap on beats one and three, and now it's kind of switched." He laughs. "There wasn't a mandate, but at the same time we're kind of coordinated that way. It's hard to clap on two and four without moving your feet. I'm serious about that. And so when Baptists did clap to a song, it was usually on the first and third beats. The changes are gradually taking place."
If there's an Elvis of contemporary Christian music (besides, of course, Elvis himself, who recorded deeply spiritual albums in the early '60s), it's probably a man named Larry Norman, who released his solo debut, Upon This Rock, on Capitol Records in 1970. His second record contained his statement of purpose, which sounds perfectly in step with the message Christian-rock bands preach 30 years later: "I want the people to know that He saved my soul/But I still like to listen to the radio/They say, "rock & roll is wrong ...'/I say I feel so good I gotta get up and dance."
Brian Q. Newcomb, who is the pastor of Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood and writes for Contemporary Christian Magazine, describes the foundations of Christian rock: "There was a whole scene in Southern California at the time the Jesus Movement was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, mid- to early '70s, and that's where most of the Christian bands sprang up. Larry Norman kind of floated through there, developed converts and followers and friends. But (it was) a whole group of bands, and that really is the basis of where CCM (contemporary Christian music) got its financial basis. It was a church where the minister was very music-friendly, so they had concerts every weekend. It was a real fertile environment. You had all these rock musicians who converted to Christianity. So they had the vocabulary and this faith, and it was fresh and vibrant and it made sense to them."
The four members of AllStarUnited sit in a tiny cinderblock room inside the Stoneridge Amphitheater at Lake of the Ozarks. They're part of the Crossover Music Festival, a Christian-music celebration spanning three days. A handful of Christian-radio and magazine reporters stand, microphones aimed at the band. A month earlier, AllStarUnited gigged at First Baptist Church in Ferguson to no more than 100 people, and it's difficult to reconcile the meager turnout then with the obsessive interest the journalists have in them here. There, they were a band playing to a nearly empty sanctuary; here, AllStarUnited are rock stars. Someone asks an umbrella kickoff question: "Do you have anything you want to say to the teenagers?"
"Yeah. Grow up!" quips drummer Christian Crowe, and the room erupts in laughter. Cameras flash. The scene is reminiscent of the Beatles' press conference at JFK Airport on the eve of the group's first American tour: a rock group basking in the limelight of adulation. Finally, lead singer Ian Eskelin, who resembles Simon LeBon, gets serious: "We have a lot of fun with the rock & roll thing. I mean, first and foremost we're Christians, but when we have those moments up onstage when we can ham it up and play to the audience, yeah, it's a rock & roll thing, and people get a kick out of it and they love it and they laugh and we laugh with them because we're pretty much just mocking ourselves."
(Notably, though, when interviewed after the Christian press has left the room, Eskelin contradicts himself: "We want to pound people in the brain with the music, because first and foremost, and as crazy as this may sound and some of the readers may freak out, especially if they're Christians but first and foremost, we're musicians. We're a rock band.")
"What's your favorite song on the new album?" asks someone from a Christian radio station.
"I like them all," says Eskelin. ""Thank You Goodnight' is a pretty personal song for me. It's a prayer for the end of the day, saying, "God, thank you so much for helping me through. I couldn't get through a 24-hour period without you. I can't imagine not having you in my life.'"
Eskelin is a born preacher. Whether speaking one-on-one or performing in front of a few thousand people, as he does at Crossover, when he speaks of faith, he does it earnestly and enthusiastically. The band's sound is straight from The Point: alternative rock that draws from Weezer and Nirvana, peppered with a few ska horns every now and then. AllStarUnited bang out a song with an affected sneer and a bouncy beat. Up onstage, they appear to be typical rock stars, and you imagine that the role comes replete with all the baggage: the alcohol, the drugs, the groupies, the hotel-room demolitions. The concepts seem so connected that they're understood to be related: If you play in a band, and you tour, and you're becoming popular, the "fringe benefits" are free. So, as drummer Crowe pounds out the ending to "Popular Americans" (with the righteous refrain "We're the ones/We're the popular Americans") and smashes the cymbals, what comes next is surprising, as Eskelin calms down the crowd with one hand raised: "I want to stop and take a moment here." He pauses and keeps his hand held high. "We have a good time with what we do, but we have some serious things to talk about as well within the midst of our chaos and ridiculous confusion up here. And that thing is that we serve an amazing, powerful, gracious lord in Jesus Christ, who chooses to love us despite our mistakes. And, man, God knows I made some stupid mistakes in my life. But haven't we all? You know, the thing that blows me away more than anything is that amazing love and grace that God extends toward us that he put out in the middle of a space, in the middle of this hot planet Earth, and he chooses to love us no matter what, and that is just so cool. It just warms my heart."
These between-song sermons are a standard part of the experience throughout the community. Nearly every band will pause at least a few times during a set to preach the Gospel, words that are nearly interchangeable from band to band. Most allow that sin is inevitable and that we all mess up on a daily basis. Life is a roller coaster of temptation, regret and, ultimately, joy, and all we as human beings can do is try our hardest to avoid sin as often as possible. Most important, it seems, is the acknowledgment, one that's repeated over and over, that we do make mistakes we're only human and that Jesus' ultimate gift is forgiveness.
Just as important as the message of the sermons themselves, though, is the simple fact of them these breaks, in fact, are expected. The skepticism that accompanied the Dingees performance had its superficial root in the purported cuss word, but there also seemed genuine doubt about the group's beliefs throughout the performance. They never stopped for a sermon, never once acknowledged Jesus or thanked the Lord. And although Pegleg directed nay-sayers to the lyric sheet of the Dingees' recent Armageddon Massive CD, their lyrics make no mention of Christ or Christianity; song titles like "Ghetto Box Smash," "Rebel Youth" and "Carry On with the Countdown" could be songs on the most recent Rancid CD or an early Circle Jerks album (in fact, many of the punk kids at Mid-Rivers Baptist Chapel were practicing a variation on slam-dancing made famous by the Circle Jerks).
The sermons also seem to placate the elders; when a band appears onstage in full rebel-rock regalia leather, Mohawks, tattoos (it's easy to distinguish band members from bright-eyed, somewhat conservatively dressed kids) one of the first orders of business is adjusting confusing perceptions to fit the context of being in a place of worship. Often, because of the musical medium thrash and ska-punk it's tough to understand the lyrics anyway. For all many of the audience members know, a band could be singing "Burn the Church." A sermon is a quick way to allay concerns proof positive that the message is the right message, that the musicians' hearts are aligned with the church's doctrine. Adding to the confusion, though, is that lyrics by even the most verbally devout Christian rock bands rarely mention outright the words "Jesus Christ" in their songs.
Between sets at Crossover, where two dozen of Christian music's brightest lights are performing from such big names as Michael W. Smith, Burlap to Cashmere, the Newsboys and 4HIM to lesser-known talents like AllStarUnited, Buck, Skillet and Jennifer Knapp the crowd is constantly reminded why they're here. A minister leads the crowd in prayers and moments of silence, thanks the Lord for the nice weather (even though it's hotter than hell) and, on one occasion, holds an altar call in which he invites crowd members to approach the stage if they're ready to "accept Jesus Christ our lord as your personal savior."
The crowd is gently urged to rise from their seats and approach the stage, and, slowly, people do. As the pastor continues to pray, lite-rock band 4HIM sets up their equipment behind him. In the crowd, all is quiet, with most heads bowed, as people trickle into the aisle and up to the front; in the end, about 100 of the nearly 3,000 people are standing at the foot of the stage, some smiling, some with tears rolling down their cheeks. They're then led to a tent behind the stage, where worship leaders talk to them as a group. After the pastor finishes, 4HIM begins to perform.
The music booked into the festival varies from peaceful, easy country to tepid adult contemporary to ska and hard rock, stretched over three days. The format is a sort of mini-Lilith Fair, with booths hawking wares, bands selling their music and T-shirts, radio stations broadcasting live, meet-and-greets with the bands. Were this a Grateful Dead show, the man standing by the front gate all alone would have perhaps been muttering "doses" or "trips" under his breath while sucking on a joint. Instead, the hippie with the diamond eyes smiles and says, "Did you know that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world? We're being executed daily in the Sudan." Asked to give his name, he politely refuses, citing a fear of reprisal from Sudanese extremists.
Just inside the gate, booths sell a new breed of Christian-message T-shirts, with designs that co-opt or blatantly copy pop-culture images and identifiable logos: a Tide detergent logo altered to read "Jesus DIED for you"; a photo of Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers with the statement "On a mission from God"; a take-off on Nike ("Air Jesus: the Ultimate High"); logos from the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, all reworked to convey a Christian message. It's an effective method of catching the eye, using the familiar as the attention-getter but then juxtaposing a Christian message on top of it.
In one sense, many of these bands do the same with music. The sound is quite similar to secular rock music ska-punk, hip-hop/metal amalgams, industrial, alternative but with lyrics that reflect the musicians' spiritual belief system. Riffs occasionally sound nearly identical to those heard on The Point or Extreme Radio. Singers mimic their secular counterparts, and it's often easy to spot the influence. Experimentation is seldom welcomed, it seems. Later, when confronted with this observation, Robbie Clark nods in acknowledgment of the similarities but defends the practice: "What do most secular bands do? The same thing! They just rip off peoples' music all the time. That's nothing new. Everybody rips off everything."
The quality of the music, for the most part, is on par with secular pop and commercial rock music; the bands have reached a level of playing that warrants them a shot at the big time. They can play their instruments, and they follow the rules of pop-music creation verse-chorus-verse with melody and hook. Extreme-metal bands like Project 86 and P.O.D. could just as well be mainstream secular acts (in fact, P.O.D.'s next album will be released on secular powerhouse label Atlantic); the same goes for ska bands like Buck, which display little if any innovation but compare favorably, talentwise, with secular counterparts like the Bosstones. None of these bands sucks, but none of them is pushing boundaries. Those who stray outside of mainstream in the Christian community, such as the Danielson Family and Pedro the Lion, are virtually ignored (though both receive high praise in the secular press) and occasionally decried.
Songs of love pepper AllStarUnited's most recent record, International Anthems for the Human Race, but they could very well be directed at a girl rather than the Savior. "That's a fine line right there," responds singer Ian Eskelin. "A Christian songwriter has the hardest lyric-writing responsibility on the planet because we're touting something that is so sacred to us; at the same time, we want people to have a good time and not always feel this huge lead weight of "Man, I've got to make a decision.' Because music is supposed to be fun. If I can correlate this to the Bible, I think the Bible is a great example of how a creative person should enter into the world of creation. The Bible is written by these creative people, the mind of God. God uses in the Bible amazing parables. If every single verse of the Bible ended with "Jesus is the way,' then I wouldn't know how to read it. And I'm reading parables and all kinds of cool stories that if you take them out of the Bible, they're still cool stories, and they make sense. Every song on an album doesn't have to end with "Jesus is the way.' There may be a song on there about pain and suffering; there may be a song about some girl you loved who broke up with you and now you think she's a total ... wench. But somewhere on the album, and this usually happens because I feel some kind of conviction come over me in the middle of the writing process; I do have times where I just lay down and say, "This is where it's at.' And there are lyrics on both of our albums like that."
"That's a growth in the industry," says Newcomb. "There's a broader number of folk expressing a variety of different ways of understanding the faith. T-Bone Burnett used to say, "You can write about the Light, or you can write about the things you see because of the Light.' You're either looking up at the reality of God's love in the world or you're looking at the world because of that love. And the reality is, you could have a lot of the same perceptions as the Offspring have from a Christian perspective. I want to give Christian artists the right to write pissed-off songs, to write love songs, to write it-ain't-a-good-day songs because when they write all these triumphant, spiritually aloof visions of heaven, most of us can't relate to that day in and day out. It's not Sunday morning every day of my life."
A cynic may submit that this ambiguity is a way to straddle the spiritual and secular worlds; if a band puts all its hope in reaching simply a Christian audience, they've cut off access to the wider music-buying public. By remaining lyrically vague, doors don't shut as quickly. This intentional ambiguity also serves as a sort of Trojan horse. If the message is too overt, you'll scare away the doubters before the message is given. Sixpence None the Richer's recent secular smash, "Kiss Me," is a perfect example. It's a pop song about two lovers frolicking through the woods; you'd be hard-pressed to find an obviously "Christian" message within it, and it's likely that many purchased the record not knowing that the band comes out of the contemporary-Christian community. But the success of the single no doubt earned them a legion of fans who would have been turned off if the song had been titled "Kiss Jesus."
"They write in metaphors," explains Kristin Engquist, a Christian-music fanatic at Crossover. "They write such deep stuff. "Kiss Me' is light, but it's still Christian. It's not like she's singing" she sings the melody ""Have sex with me.' It's a sweet love song. She's not singing something trashy."
Engquist then confesses her infatuation with Sonny Sandoval, lead singer of metal band P.O.D.: "P.O.D.! The guy with the tongue ring! Mmm-mmm-mmm, he's so fine! And MxPx, Mike, he's got all those tattoos." This sets off a little screamfest between Engquist and her friend Naomey Wilford, both of whom seem not only obsessed with the bands but with individual members' body alterations.
"The Newsboys!" exclaims Wilford. "I dyed my hair pink to get his attention. And I'm obsessed with Kevin from dc Talk, and he blew kisses at me! It was so great."
"I want to go see the Insyderz!" says Engquist.
"Oh, I know he's got his eyebrow pierced."
In St. Louis, the biggest Christian record store is the all-encompassing six-store chain One Way Books, a one-stop Jesus-mart that sells all matter of material devoted to the message, from bumper stickers and T-shirts to faith books and a large section devoted to contemporary-Christian CDs and cassettes. The music section takes up a quarter of each store, with bins and display cases highlighting the hot titles of today: perennial favorites dc Talk and the Newsboys, of course, but also equally popular at least these days up-and-comers OC Supertones, who play palatable rock with an edge. The stores have an alternative-rock section but no general-rock section; sections are also devoted to Southern gospel, African-American gospel, contemporary Christian, worship and spoken word.
Video screens project the latest videos from top artists. Pop some headphones on and press a picture of Burlap to Cashmere, and their video appears on the screen, replete with a band interview, cuts from their recent CD and snapshots of the band members. Headphones sit next to CDs on display racks so that shoppers can hear the music which is important in a city without a Christian-rock radio station. A browse through the alternative-rock racks is similar to a browse at Streetside or Borders. CD covers and album titles reveal little about the bands' theology. Rather, they're hip, graphically stylized images. You could slip in a copy of the latest Korn release and not know the difference. Gray areas abound, even if they're not supposed to. A tiny magazine rack sells Christian-music magazines.
The current slew of Christian-rock bands is a relatively new phenomenon that took off when dc Talk and Jars of Clay exploded in the mid-'90s, opening the gate for devoted musicians to marry twin excitements the Lord's word and the devil's beat. The two bands, along with the success of gospel funkster Kirk Franklin and contemporary songster Michael W. Smith (as well as one-shot gospel records from country singer LeAnn Rimes and the "inspirational" soundtrack to The Prince of Egypt), are partly responsible for a huge growth in the Christian-music retail sales. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Christian music in 1998 owned 6.3 percent, or $865 million, of the total market. That's up from 3.1 percent in 1989.
And, inevitably, with this explosion an entire industry has arrived to support it. Labels, radio stations and record stores have all sprouted.
The industry is self-policing, according to One Way music buyer Brandon Marshall: "Each label has their own standard they already discriminate as far as which band they'll sign based on lyrics and that sort of thing. However, I think nowadays in the Christian market, it's not so much that there has to be a direct mention of Christ or God, but just that the message is an overall Christian message, either positive on family values or positive on doing things for others the part of the Christian message other than just Christ or God. You'll hear a lot of times in the reviews that distributors will send us that this band has overall positive emphasis in their songs or that kind of stuff."
Early Christian-rock releases were sneaked out on secular labels, but in the mid-'70s the foundations of the Christian-music industry were being constructed with labels like Word and Myrrh, both of which began as Christian spoken-word and sermon labels. They're now the twin powerhouses of the industry and are subsidiaries of the secular major-label system; like the corporate culture at large, the Christian-music industry is tangled, so they occasionally dance with their devil: The umbrella company that released last year's Touched by an Angelsoundtrack, featuring Amy Grant's "Shine All Your Light" (Epic Records, a subsidiary of the Sony Corp.), also released, on another imprint, Black Sabbath's The Last Supper, featuring the songs "Sweet Leaf" and "Children of the Grave." Sparrow, a wholesome Christian label responsible for the Newsboys, is actually part of the blanket EMI Christian Music Group, which also includes Forefront Records, home of Skillet and dc Talk. EMI is part of EMD, the big corporation that owns Capitol and Virgin Records. So the conservative-Christian act Skillet is, in a sense, labelmates with Public Image Limited, whose new boxed set contains the incendiary song "Religion," featuring the lyric "Stained-glass windows keep the cold outside/while the hypocrites hide inside/ with the lies of statues in their mind/where the Christian religion made them blind."
The advantage of this system, though, at least from financial and crossover-potential points of view, is that if an artist reaches a certain level of success, he or she can be shifted to the next tier in the label system in much the same way that a talented baseball player can be promoted from Triple-A play to the majors. The band dc Talk started on Forefront, a Christian label, but after they hit in '95 with Jesus Freak, they moved up to Virgin Records.
The sort of crossover success that dc Talk achieved is nearly always a one-way street. Most, if not all, who have accomplished similar feats Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, Bob Carlisle have done so without having to compromise the foundation of their message. It's much more rare in fact, nearly unheard-of for a secular artist to cross over and hit the charts with a Christian message. Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill contains a strong Christian message but is ignored within the community. Jewel, whose music is nearly unbearably devotional, is avoided because she's considered "too New Age," says one Christian fan. "She's into crystals and fairies and stuff." Likewise Tori Amos.
And on the Christian side, secular music, although it has its allure musically, is often avoided, but of course tastes and tolerances vary. Brandon Marshall of One Way Books says his collection contains more secular than Christian titles, but Nick Erickson of Ten Pin Productions struggles with it. Asked whether he buys and listens to secular music, his response is telling: "I do and I have, but it takes me a while to and it's hard for me to. I struggle with it. And a lot of times I don't even keep it. I remember buying the Above the Rim soundtrack not long after it came out. I listened to it four times, and it bothered me so much that I actually took a hammer to the CD. I took it and I cut myself a couple times because I was banging it up so hard that it started breaking and I cut myself with it. My conscience was telling me my convictions. Every other song was full of cuss words, and I was like, "'I can't do this.' I had to get rid of it."
Musicians face a tough choice when walking the line between performing for secular crowds or remaining solely in the Christian community. The choice is simple: Do you, literally, want to preach to the converted, or are you willing to go out on a limb? Local Christian band Cope does the latter. "When they played Midnight Metal (at East St. Louis rock club Pop's)," says J.T. Ibanez, their manager, "they expressed something like, "Obviously we're a Christian band, if you can't tell already, and we're up here for one reason it's Jesus Christ. He gave us our talents.' They go on for about three minutes, and then they leave it at that. A lot of people have respect for them. They get more respect. I find that a lot of Christian bands in general, if they get up and say something about their faith or what they believe, they get more respect than they would if they just played and got off. I've seen them do it in front of a bunch of skinheads that were pretty much ready to go off, and then as soon as they started saying their thing and then they got offstage, they were like, "You guys are pretty cool. It takes a lot to say what you believe, and I respect you for that.'"
Keyboardist Korey Cooper of Skillet is a dervish onstage at Crossroads, grinding and leaping, jumping from keyboards to drum riser to slam a cymbal with her fist; she's a woman in the middle of a musical frenzy, the kind that every musician, Christian, Satanist, agnostic or atheist, longs for the kind of stuff that would probably outrage Jerry Falwell. She's completely liberated and uninhibited as she performs. During a press conference afterward, she sits quietly and shyly as her husband, lead singer and bassist John Cooper, answers questions. He's a perpetual jokester with a pleasantly devious twinkle in his eyes and is genuinely excited as he raves about the previous night's show in St. Louis: "A lot of people got saved last night, which was pretty exciting. I wasn't expect ... I hate to say I wasn't expecting it, like I don't have any faith but more than usual. Usually a couple people get saved, but last night ..." Asked what he means by people being "saved" during their performance, he explains: "We always do some sort of Gospel presentation, and we'll lead people in a prayer and either ask people to receive Jesus for the first time or to make a decision for Christ and really start living for Him. And there are always loads of people for the second thing that need rededication because we usually play to church kids. But last night there were just lots of people that got saved, which was exciting. Usually it's just two or three people."
The discrepancy between the rock-star image of freeform, uninhibited celebration banging out what's been called both the "devil's beat" and the "sex beat" and the conservative message of saving souls and altar calls is the central tension of Christian music. Rebellion is in the music's nature and stands in stark contrast to the Christian message of abstinence and restraint. Is there anything more natural to rock & roll than the occasional blurting out of a cuss word? Anything more rock & roll than premarital hanky-panky?
Is a rock singer supposed to talk this way? "We've opened up for a million Christian bands," says AllStarUnited's Ian Eskelin, "and I'm not going to name any names, but I have actually been to Christian shows with friends of mine who aren't saved, aren't Christians so many people approach that term like, "Well, they're not saved,' like, "Don't talk to them, they're lepers.' I've got non-Christian friends. I'm praying for them. I want to hang out with them in heaven, but, man, the way to reach people is not to say, "Turn or burn.' It's to live by example and to show people that there is something different about you. And if I can take two minutes in between songs and show people that I'm a normal guy with normal problems and, yeah, I've done some stupid things in my life, but I've been saved because of someone else's doing then that's cool."
The major irony of the movement is that the industry has its foundations in the evangelical-Christian belief system, one with a message that's clear as a bell, one that Eskelin implies: Accept Jesus as your savior, or you will not enter the gates of heaven. This core belief places a straitjacket around the message, and despite the many different ways the musicians offer it through hip-hop or speed metal, with punk or ska the message must remain consistent to be accepted within the community. There is no rating system, but there are loose understandings and clear methods to determine the propriety of the message. "Before I book a band," says Ten Pin Productions' Robbie Clark, "If the label's not a Christian label like the way I did with P.O.D.: I did a lot of research on that to make sure they were cool. Make sure the label's on the up and up, ask for a lyric sheet if the CD doesn't come with one so I can read the lyrics, and find out what these guys are saying. I've never booked a band if I wasn't 100 percent sure that they were preaching what I agree with."
Not only do more theologically liberal musicians find it difficult to work within the framework of the community, they don't have the desire to do so. Brian Q. Newcomb tells the story of interviewing a songwriter who sings of faith without targeting the Christian-music scene. "My first question to David Wilcox when I interviewed him was, "As a person of faith, why aren't you exploiting that?' and he's like, "Exploiting my religion? What a ridiculous ' And it was a wonderful diatribe. He just went off: "What a cheap and embarrassing thing to do, to let people know I'm a Christian as a way to sell more product. How evil that would be.' And yet that's the place most Christians in the industry who sell their records in Christian stores find themselves in they are constantly having to motivate their spirituality as a means to sales."
Says Newcomb: "A lot of those folk who operate in the framework of conservative evangelical Christianity run the bookstores, run the Christian radio stations, and those are where the contemporary-Christian-music bands go to get validated. If they're independent, they want to get their album sold in Christian record stores. If they want to get signed, they have to win over a Christian label. Well, often those Christian labels are conservative and evangelical. So when you find a liberal Christian band a band with Christian values that's liberal they're probably on a mainstream label probably not even on a Christian label.
"The idea of Christian rock & roll to begin with is an oxymoron," he continues. "You see rowdy rock & rollers in leather jackets and stud-cut hair and assume they're worldly. But when you actually sit down with the guy from Skillet, he's talking about the moving of the spirit and "the pastor led me to this and this and this,' and he'll quote Scripture between lines of a song. And it turns out he's very churchified, and pretty much a part of this evangelical conservative subculture, with all of its pretexts and understandings."
Even a band as evangelical as Skillet, though, occasionally gets stranded with the expectations of the community while trying to make music. Says John Cooper of an incident at Crossover: "When we got here, I was really stressed. We had a lot of stuff to do, and I met somebody (backstage), and he said, "OK, we're going to pray for you guys before we get started,' and I was like, "Oh man, I don't have time' I didn't tell him that, but you know what I mean? There's always something somebody wants to do right before, and you're just stressed to high heaven. Like, today I didn't get to tune or check my bass, and I was miserable the entire concert because my bass sounded so bad. And it all went back to giving up that time to pray."
As soon as Sonny Sandoval, lead singer of metal band P.O.D., kicks into the group's first song at the Mid-Rivers Baptist Chapel, all eyes are on him. He's dark-complected, with long black dreadlocks and a ragged demeanor. The crowd half like-minded rockers who dress the dress and seem like your typical 1999 metalhead; half young, conservatively dressed kids whose parents will be waiting out front precisely at 10 p.m. when the concert is over pushes forward. A few guys in the audience are standing on one of the few pews left in the sanctuary, and as P.O.D kicks in, the guys leap from the pews and race toward the crowd. One of them props himself up on the others's shoulders, and as the crowd parts to accept them, a few hands push the one up above all the heads until he's surfing in a sea of arms, each doing their part to keep him afloat. He stretches his arms and legs wide. The crowd is moving him slowly, and as he loses momentum and the arms start to tire, he falls onto the stage at Sonny's feet. The crowd-surfer stands onstage for a moment, stretches his arms out and slowly steps back into the crowd. The audience's gaze returns to the singer. He screams the lyrics to the song as the horde continues to surge.
"Sonny," says J.T. Ibanez, "as soon as he steps onstage he has everyone's attention. He just has this aura about him that's just like "He is God.' He just has this stage presence. Even if they all just stood there and played the music and didn't move at all, you would still be in awe. It's just unexplainable. Sonny just has that effect on everyone. He's just a very godly man, as is everyone in the band."
Sandoval screams the lyrics to "Breathe Babylon": "Look to the sky! Heed the warning!/The shadow is coming! The shadow is coming!/The plagues are coming! The plagues are coming!/I feel the breath of the death beast!"